I frequently had night terrors as a child, though apparently what I experienced was not what the psychologists call “night terror.” True night terrors, or pavor nocturnus, is a parasomnia sleep disorder characterized by extreme terror and a temporary inability to regain full consciousness. The subject wakes abruptly from deep (slow-wave) sleep, usually while gasping, moaning, or screaming. It is often impossible to fully awaken the person, and after the episode the subject normally settles back to sleep without waking.
Me, I either woke up fully, or never actually got to sleep. These incidents weren’t caused by nightmares, because there was no dream involved—just terrifying thoughts.
One time it was because I had just seen a cliffhanger episode of Lassie (during the June Lockhart / Jon Provost years) which ended with Lassie’s life being in peril, and I worked myself into a frenzy over it, never realizing that they don’t kill off the character for whom the series is named.
(Unless, of course, you’re Valerie Harper and you fight with the producers of your series Valerie over salary and creative control, in which case they kill you off in an automobile accident, rename the series Valerie’s Family, and hire Sandy Duncan to replace you.)
Most of my so-called night terrors came from two sources: my fear of UFOs (they scared the bejesus out of me even before all the abduction stories started appearing—remember, this was still the late 1950s, back in the days of Project Blue Book); and my fear of dying. If I thought of either of them before bed, my mother was in for hours of my panicked crying, and I always had trouble explaining what was going on inside my head.
I blame most of my fear of dying on that damned 18th century children’s bedtime prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Even if you end it with “God bless Mommy and Daddy. . . .” and you name everyone in your world whom you want God to watch over, that image of dying in your sleep just lingers in your mind. I think the prayer bespeaks the Puritans’ religious cruelty, frankly.
When you’re a child, your world is small, and your safety and security is limited to its boundaries. Outside those lines, everything is dark and mysterious and fearsome. Don’t go into the woods or you’ll meet up with the big, bad wolf. Danger, danger, Will Robinson.
Dying, of course, is the ultimate darkness, the final mystery. And I knew it was one that my loving mother could never protect me from. Now, if anything, I am the one to soothe her fears of death.
One thing the shamanic path has given me is a familiarity, or at least a level of comfort, with the world of spirit—and, I believe, that realm we enter after death. I now see death (as opposed to dying, which is a whole nother subject) as a seamless transition from one kind of life to another. And I’m no longer afraid.
I’m no longer afraid of UFOs, either, but that’s a story for a different time.